EDMONTON — With another plot of unmarked graves found in British Columbia, and a Roman Catholic church burnt to the ground, Wednesday became one more in a series of dark days.
About 30 minutes outside Edmonton, in Morinville, Alta., residents watched in the early morning hours as a century-old Roman Catholic church’s steeple and roof collapsed, surrounded by flames in what Alberta Premier Jason Kenney labelled a potential “hate-crime.”
A church outside of Edmonton burned to the ground early Wednesday morning. It’s the latest fire at a Canadian church and coincides with the discoveries of hundreds of graves in recent weeks at the site of former residential schools.
Several hours later, a site believed to contain some 182 sets of human remains in unmarked graves — the third such site revealed over the past month in this country — was flagged near the location of a former residential school in Cranbrook, B.C.
Both events come at a moment of tension in Canada where many are facing the realities of the residential school system that existed for most of the 20th century and which claimed the lives of at least 4,000 Indigenous children.
Even though speculation has been widespread, no official connection between a string of church burnings that have happened across Canada in recent days and the unmarked grave sites has been made.
But for Arthur Noskey, the Treaty 8 First Nations of Alberta grand chief, churches need protecting, and during a meeting Wednesday, he and other Indigenous leaders discussed having their members appointed as security to do so.
Their reasons for offering that security, however, are not simply about protecting buildings, Noskey suggested.
“These are potential evidence sites,” he told the Star. “We’ll be talking to our members directly and our elders as well.
“I know everybody’s hurting and the whole nation is in an uproar, but you know, for us, the truth is coming out.”
Treaty 8 covers the northern half of Alberta, as well as a swath of British Columbia and Saskatchewan, and is comprised of 39 First Nations communities.
Sites of former residential schools — there were 25 in Alberta — also need to be protected, said Noskey.
There have been a series of church fires since the discovery of 215 unmarked graves near a former residential school in Kamloops in B.C. and another site where 751 unmarked graves were flagged on the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan.
After RCMP said Wednesday that they are investigating the “suspicious” fire that levelled the St. Jean Baptiste church in Morinville, the Alberta premier said it appeared to be a hate-crime and called it “unacceptable.”
“These attacks targeting Christian churches are attempts to destroy the spiritual sites that are important to people of faith across Alberta, including many Indigenous people,” said Kenney.
He added that he instructed Alberta’s justice minister to work with police in the province to step up “monitoring and protection of potential target sites.”
Catherine Murton Stoehr, a historian of Canadian colonialism and treaties, slammed Kenney’s comments as “monstrously irresponsible” and labelled them “an invitation to all non-Indigenous Canadians to go down a road of profound self-delusion and moral atrophy.”
“No one has murdered Catholic children and hidden their bodies in the ground,” she said, adding that Kenney seemed to be promoting a “spectacular false equivalence.”
“He’s changing the subject, and this is a political strategy that we have come to accept in this country,” she said.
In Morinville, a neighbour whose house is next-door to the church, also wasn’t ready to go as far as Kenney.
“I’m really sad that it’s come to this,” said 28-year-old Justin Hogg. “But I don’t know that Jason Kenney should exactly determine that it was a hate-crime before it’s investigated.”
Hogg has fond memories of being a kid and going to the church. He recalled being in awe of the murals and the architecture. For his whole life, the church bells have rung every single day, but “that’s just gone now,” he said.
“I’m really hurt,” said Hogg. “I’m not saying it was an intentional act, but if it was, it absolutely could have come at the cost of hundreds of lives with all those condos and housing in the area.”
Iain Bushell, Morinville’s general manager of infrastructure and community services, said the fire was so fierce that firefighters could not enter the 114-year-old building and the roof collapsed a short time later.
Once the inferno had been extinguished, the church was a pile of rubble.
“Certainly the timing is unfortunate, given that it is a rather iconic Catholic Church in our community and with the timing of sad events that have been uncovered in the country, right now,” Bushell said.
Paul Terrio, the Bishop of St. Paul, put out a statement saying that it was with “a sad heart that we learn the historic parish church of Morinville burned to the ground early this morning.”
“The pastor, Fr. Trini, says that at 11:00 last night after watering his garden and praying at the Grotto beside the church everything appeared normal,” the statement reads.
“But after 3 a.m. this morning, he was awakened by a loud noise and then saw flames in the basement of the church.”
Four small Catholic churches on Indigenous lands in rural southern British Columbia have been destroyed by suspicious fires and a vacant former Anglican church in northwestern B.C. was recently damaged in what RCMP said could be arson.
In Nova Scotia, police have also deemed a church fire on the Sipekne’katik First Nation “suspicious,” after an early morning blaze Wednesday damaged part of a Roman Catholic Church there.
Earlier this week, in Gleichen, Alta., which is just east of Calgary, RCMP said they were investigating a potential arson attempt at Siksika Catholic Church that took place just after midnight on Monday, although it had been put out before any serious structural damage took place.
Tensions between the Catholic Church and Canadians have no doubt risen since the grim discoveries of the unmarked graves and some have called on Pope Francis to come to Canada and deliver an apology.
But Noskey had a blunt message for the Pope: “Don’t even set foot in Canada.”
“(An) apology is going to do nothing,” he said. “If I went and took your kids out of school, or anywhere, and abused them in school and in the process, come tell you … ‘I’m sorry,’ what does that do for you?”
Still, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde confirmed on Wednesday that a delegation of Indigenous leaders will travel to the Vatican and seek an apology from Pope Francis.
“The Anglican Church has apologized. The Presbyterian Church has apologized. United Church has apologized,” said Bellegarde at a virtual news conference.
“This is really part of truth and part of the healing and reconciliation process for survivors to hear the apology from the highest position within the Roman Catholic Church, which is the Pope.”
With files from Steve McKinley and The Canadian Press